Friday, August 23, 2013

Politics in the Age of Silver Bullets and One-Trick Ponies

Note:  My latest blog was originally published on August 22, 2013, in Politics in Minnesota where it and other good political news can be found.

“Simple solutions from simple people.”  This is how one of my graduate school professors used to deride flavor-of-the-month or single-minded ideas proposed by many politicians, interest groups, and advocates for a cause.  He was correct.  There is a penchant in business, and now in politics these days, to believe that there are a simple solutions to our problems and that all that  needs to be done is to do one thing and poof, the problem is solved.  The reality is that there are no silver bullets and those who believe they exist are at best one-trick ponies who are conflating marketing and ideology with governance and public policy.
            The world of business and marketing is all about silver bullets.  Marketing is selling simple solutions to our complex problems. Can’t lose weight?  Try this pill or this diet.  Unpopular? buy this car, use this toothpaste, or wear this overpriced clothing with a logo on it.  Conversely, managers and leaders look for the silver bullet to solve a problem, sell a product, or save a company.  They believe there is a “killer app,” feature, or marketing solution that will do it all.
            Even the art of management has been reduced to silver bullets and one trick pony ideas. Just consider some of the titles of leading business books over the last few years.  There is the One Minute Manager, apparently a guide for those lacking time to think.  Then there is Emotional Management for Project Managers–a book for those who do not or cannot think and need to do it with emotion.  Conversely there is The Intuitive Mind: Profiting from the Power of Your Sixth Sense and A Sixth Sense for Project Management–books with titles that seems to conjure up your inner clairvoyant or ESP to be a successful manager.  And then there are silly titles such as The Lazy Project Manager, Winnie-the Pooh on Management, The Zen Leader, and of course Managing for Dummies, Project Management for Dummies, and Leadership for Dummies.  I guess you do not have to be an Einstein, or even close, to be a successful manager.
            We also have six sigma, balanced scorecard, dashboards, and strategic management.  All these are supposed to be tools that solve all of our management problems. MBA programs drool over Machiavelli’s Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as models of successful management, believing that good leaders are like ruthless military or political leaders and that you need to have a my way or highway approach to management.  And then there are those dreary books by Jack Welch, Donald Trump. and other former corporate CEOs telling you how you can replicate what they did, even though GE actually underperformed according to many analysts (and did not pay taxes and had a record of serious pollution) or that’s Trump’s success comes the old-fashioned way (he takes over his father’s successful real estate company) and his companies have filed for bankruptcy four times.  For that he deserves to be fired!  Instead, he has his own show telling others how to manage their businesses.
            All of these books, programs, and leaders promise the same thing–some simple technique that will make you an effective manager.  They all seem to say that the gateway to success is adopting their simple single technique and it alone will transform you into a great manager and improve the performance of your business, non-profit, or government agency.  It is a surprise that they do not claim it will cure baldness or help you lose  20 pounds–much like the old quack miracle elixirs of the old days.
            It’s bad enough that business is so simple minded, but politics has increasingly turned down that road.  Yes there has always been zealots who told what Plato called the “big lie”–proposing a single comprehensive solution to solving all of our complex social, economic, or political problems.  Hitler of course was the most extreme–the Jews were the problem and their extermination was the solution.  But less extreme than that, over the course of American history racial minorities, communists, and more recently, welfare queens, immigrants, and gays and lesbians have been singled out as the cause America’s budget deficits, economic woes, or decline in morality, thereby demanding simple solutions such as elimination of welfare, building armed walls around our borders, or banning same-sex marriage.
            It is not enough to single out one group to persecute as a cure for our political problems, There are also the silver bullet solutions, often proposed by those of the political right these days. (Remember when they criticized liberals as simply wanting to throw money at a problem?)  Cutting taxes is the best example.  It seems no matter what the problem is, cutting taxes is the solution for some.  Unemployment too high?  Cut taxes.  Spending too much or deficits too high?  Cut taxes.  Government waste?  Cut taxes.  Government running a surplus (as it was during the end of the Clinton era)?  Cut taxes.  Need to lure business to the state?  Cut taxes.  Cutting taxes cannot be the answer to all these questions or problems.  Cutting taxes is not public policy idea, it is a marketing gimmick.
            During the 2012 presidential debates Herman Cain proposed “9-9-9" as his tax plan.  He was quickly followed by Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich who also proposed catchy but generally meaningless and impractical tax ideas.  Michele Bachmann talked of wanting to reenact Reagan’s tax cuts, whatever she meant by that.  None of these ideas were really well thought out, researched, or evidence-backed theories.  They were simple-minded slogans to sell a candidate or a cause, not solve a problem.  They are ideas proposed by zealots who have confused sloganeering and ideology with thoughtful public policy deliberation.
            Look beyond taxes to see other examples of this.  The gun debate is a great example.  More guns mean less crime and more personal security for the NRA types.  Privatization and choice is the solution to failing schools or bloated uncompetitive bureaucracies.  Deregulation will cure business competitiveness.   And, until very recently, arresting more people for longer periods of time is the solution to our drug problem.  Less anyone think that Republicans, Tea Partiers,  and conservatives have a monopoly on being one-trick ponies with silver bullets. Spending more money alone will not solve underachievement problems with students, and banning guns will not solve all the problems surrounding crime, suicide, and domestic abuse.
            Legal philosopher Lon Fuller once declared that many of society’s problem are “polycentric.”  By that he meant there was not one center or problem but that often social ills have many interconnected causes and problems, demanding complex solutions with many parts. The reality is that except in the movies where a silver bullet kills the zombie or gets the bad guy, there are no silver bullets.  There are no single solutions or one-size fits all fixes that can solve all of our problems.  For those interested in improving governance and making more effective public policy, this is an important point worth remembering.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Obama's Paradoxical Presidency

Note:  This blog was originally published in the August 8, 2013 edition of Politics in Minnesota.

Barack Obama’s presidency is a paradox.  At no point has a president been so powerful yet so weak.  He is a brilliant orator, capable of inspiring millions, but horrible at influencing Congress. His first term legislative record was a laundry list of major accomplishments, his second term is already over.  He wanted to be a post-partisan, post-racial president, but all the polls suggest he is one of the most polarizing modern presidents.  How do we explain the president that Barack Obama became, and understand the one that many hoped he would be but failed to achieve?
            First, consider the president that everyone thought Obama would be.  He was to be the candidate of change.  He was to be the president of peace, the anti-Bush who would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He would end torture, close Guantanamo Bay, and bring peace to the Middle East.  He would do that while consulting with allies and not going it alone.  He was also to be the president of universal health care, more alternative energies, and fixing the economy in a way that would produce more good paying jobs in the green economy of the future. 
            Obama promised a lot, and he delivered, sort of.  We sort of have universal health care with Obamacare, yet it is not clear how well it will work, whether it will save money, or really lead to a change in American health.  The economy is sort of on the mends.  Millions of new jobs have been created, but we are still years from recovering all the losses from 2008.  Wall Street has rebounded, but the gap between the rich and is at record levels.  Home values have returned for many, but for millions others their mortgages are still underwater.  Corporations have record profits, but salaries and family incomes  are flat or lower than they were before he became president.  We are officially out of Iraq and close to the same with Afghanistan, but one can hardly say that mission was really accomplished with either.  The list could go on.  Obama’s accomplishments are significant, but so many of them since incomplete or fragile.
            Conversely, who would have ever thought Obama would have been the president to deport more individuals than any other president in history.  He has prosecuted more leaks than any other president. He asserted the right to use drones to kill Americans, and he vigorously defends a vast network of NSA spying on Americans.  He bailed out the banks but did little for homeowners.  Dodd-Frank restructured Wall Street but not a lot for Main Street. His green energy economy went nowhere and most people expect will he endorse the Keystone Pipeline.  This is on the heels of him wanting to push more nuclear and “clean coal” technology.  It now even looks like he will place Larry Summers instead of Janet Yellen at the head of the Federal Reserve Board.
            To his defenders many argue that Obama is still cleaning up Bush’s mess.  To liberals he has done no more than warm over Bush era policies.  To conservatives, he is a detested socialist.  To watch Obama now one gets the sense that he has given up on his presidency and that his second term is already over.  He still offers lofty rhetoric about the economy and jobs but no one thinks he can deliver because of Republicans in Congress.  True they have fought him all the way but Obama has yet to learn how to negotiate with them.  He does not scare them and he cannot seem to beat a dysfunctional and unpopular Republican Party that has fallen out of the ideological mainstream for most Americans.  And now it is also clear that eight months into his second term, he has lost the support of his own party.  Democrats want Yellen not Summers, they are critical of the NSA but Obama will not budge.  His party does not want to negotiate away Social Security and other entitlement programs, Obama seems almost eager to put them on the table to get a grand budget deal. Obama looks increasingly irrelevant politically. 
            So how did it all happen? Why has Obama always cast his eyes to the side when he looks history or destiny in the eye?  Richard Neustadt once said that the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.  This power is a combination of many things, including party support, electoral  majorities, public opinion, and a host of other factors.  But the presidency is more than the formal powers of Article II of the Constitution.  It is also a product of the person who is he president.  More particularly, presidencies are defined in part by the character of the person who is president.
            In  Presidential Character, political scientist James David Barber sought to construct a means to describe and categorize presidents.  The basic problem we all face is to make an accurate guess to what type of president a candidate will be.  According to Barber, a person's personality, psychology, or "character" shapes performance and thus knowing something about a president's character will tell us about possible future performance.  In effect, the psychological character of the president melds with the formal office of the presidency to determine governing style.
            What types of presidential characters are there?  Barber thinks we can make that assessment along two dimensions.  There is activity-passivity:  How much energy will a person invest in the Presidency?  Second there is a positive-negative affect:  How does one feel about what one does? Thus, these two dimensions allow for four different types of presidents each having specific examples.   Early in his presidency Obama was an active-positive.  This is the type of president John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson were. These are presidents as doers–they are results-orientated, flexible, and demonstrate a sense of growth and happiness in their job.  This is less the Obama we now see.  He displays more the rigidity of active-negative presidents such as Richard Nixon, or the withdrawn passive-negative dimension of Calvin Coolidge, or maybe even the passive-positive of Warren Harding, a president unwilling or unable to act or make decisions.
            It is not clear how to classify the current Obama as president but he certainly is not the active-positive one he once was.  Moreover, his lack of legislative and administrative experience prior to being president is showing, and his refusal to consult but a handful or close advisors has prevented him from changing his governing style.  Whatever energy or character he does have, the clock of his presidency continues to tick, pushing him further and further into a second term lame duck status.  Obama’s legacy now is almost beyond his control and absent a surprise, he will leave office a paradox for what he did, could have done, and what he became as president.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

American Democracy and the NSA

Imagine a government that spies on its citizens, often without warrants. A government that holds secret court hearings, or a government that asserts the right to detain and jail citizens indefinitely, in some cases in distant places away from family and lawyers. Or a government that asserts the right to hunt down and execute its citizens on suspicion of being the enemy.  Such a government we would describe as lawless, standing in contempt of human rights and individual liberties. It is a government some would describe as lawless. This is the government that some like Senators Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, and others think is beginning to emerge in the United States as a result of stories about NSA surveillance of telephone calls and e-mail messages. It is a government, they say, that needs to confine and define the discretion of public officials to prevent the violation of individual rights.
    The hallmark of a free society is a rule of law that limits the discretion of public officials to violate individual rights.  A constitutional democracy is one where the government is subject to legal limits, a respect for what legal philosopher Lon Fuller once called an “inner morality of law” that recognizes not simply formal procedural regularity but what political theorist David Dyzenhaus calls a substantive respect for freedom.  Nazi Germany may have had procedural regularity, but it lacked the real respect for rights.
    Yes, public officials need discretion to make choices, but those choices cannot be made with unbridled authority. To a large extent this was the criticism of the American colonies when they asserted their independence from England in 1776. The Declaration of Independence catalogs a list of grievances and abuses of rights by King George III, including a failure to respect “laws for establishing judiciary powers.”   There needs to be a balance established with the law, as publicly debated, defining the scope of discretion that public officials may exercise.
    The American constitutional system was a reaction to the abuses by the King. It places both procedural and substantive limits on what the government can do. The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses are there to prevent arbitrary and capricious decisions and to ensure that every person is treated the same. The Bill of Rights places a substantive limit on what the government can do to people (may not abridge freedom of speech), and it demands, as stated in the Fourth Amendment, that the government needs to have particularized suspicion to search, detain, or arrest individuals. One cannot have a Captain Louis Renault (from the movie Casablanca) “round up the usual suspects’ approach to investigating crimes.
    But to many, 9-11 changed many things, including government respect for constitutional limits on its powers when it comes to respect for individual rights. It began with the Bush administration and continues under Obama.  Recent revelations of the NSA surveillance programs tracking telephone numbers and Internet data, along with the US Postal service photographing each piece of mail smack too much of an Orwellian Big Brother. These actions are taking place without warrants, or with warrants issued in secret court hearings by a tribunal that rarely denies a government request. 
    This news comes on top of what we have known for years that the federal government, dating back to the Bush Administration, has been monitoring phone calls, that America citizens along with foreign nationals were held in Guantanamo Bay, or rendered to secret CIA facilities abroad and tortured, force-fed, and often detained for years without access to legal counsel or opportunity to appear before a judge. Or that the president now asserts the right to use drones to kill Americans abroad suspected of being terrorists, without respect for due process or proof of guilt.
    The justification for all this is national security.  Perhaps we are a safer nation for all this but we do not know.  It is the same government officials whom the law is supposed to restrain who are making the case for why their actions are justified. We are asked by Obama and the NSA to trust the government, or to accept that the ends justify the means, but how are we to judge whether these actions are justified if we don't even know about them unless individuals such as Snowden leak or whistle blow?
    This is not what a democratic government is supposed to do. Decisions about use of government authority to maintain national security should be debated in an open and transparent fashion. The government should be required, in an open court and subject to public scrutiny, to justify why it needs to monitor communications among its citizens, demonstrating that it has met the constitutional burden of particularized suspicion. This is what Americans fought a war of independence for, and it is supposedly what separates the United States from undemocratic countries. Limiting discretion to protect rights is what the law is supposed to do, it is why the law matters.

After thoughts

Some quick thoughts on a few other items in the news.

1.  Obama and his own Democrats seem to be parting company. Most Democrats seem skeptical of the NSA spying program and they also prefer Janet Yellen to Larry Summers. It seems interesting that so early in Obama’s second term that members of his own party in Congress perceive their political interests to be increasing distinct from that of the president.

2.  Municipal power for Minneapolis? There is a powerful case for a municipal utility. Generally they have lower rates than investor-owner ones. But this is not the only argument that supporters should give. They need to push the arguments for how public utilities have incentives to encourage alternative energy sources and decreased usage. Moreover, supporters need to do a better job in arguing how a public facility can do a better job with maintenance, repairs, and emergencies. In the short term Xcel Energy may have the upper hand here. Overall, the case needs to be made to show how replacing a public monopoly with a private one will be better. Perhaps two ideas going forward should be considered. First, how about competition between public and a municipal utility?   Second, how about a jointly operated Minneapolis-St Paul municipal power plant? It would be able to achieve economies of scale that one city could not.

3.  Julianne Ortman for Senate? It will be a tough road for her to beat Franken. He has money and good approval ratings and a national base to support him. The RNC does not perceive him as easy a win as picking up other Democratic Senate seats across the USA. Also, what is Ortman’s narrative to victory?

4.  Same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota. Opponents vow to target legislators who supported it and repeal the law. The best thing to happen to the GOP was to legalize same-sex marriage. It is now behind them and they can concentrate on other messages, if they can find one besides being against everything.

5.  Finally, the other day I received a Facebook friend request from a person I did not know. Her profile said that she was “religiously conservative and worried that  the country had lost God we were on the wrong track.”  I thought about it for a moment and thought about what she meant?  Did she mean the country was on the right track when we had slavery? When we persecuted gays and lesbians? When we discriminated against women?  Or when we were in the middle of the Cold War? Or did she mean we needed to get back to an America that busted unions, denied help to the poor, and persecuted those who dissented or took unorthodox political positions?

Bob Dylan once wrote a song about those who spoke of God on their side. I am not always sure that America was going in the right direction even when we did have God.